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The impact of remote work on mental health during COVID-19

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6 mins

COVID-19 has had an impact on the mental health of just about everyone. Our lifestyles are much different than they were before the pandemic. Social distancing has changed our lives, making it challenging to connect with family and friends out of an abundance of caution. This has caused many people to slip into depression due in part to physical isolation from those we care about most.

Our professional lives have been impacted as well. Because of COVID-19, remote work has replaced going to the traditional workplace for many Americans. According to Stanford News, one study found that 42 percent of the U.S. labor force was working remotely in November 2020. Adjusting to remote work is a major shift in how they work for many of these workers, and undoubtedly some love it, and some deplore it.

Business Insider has referenced a study that showed remote work can be a big plus for mental health because happy people enjoy good mental health. The study, conducted by job search engine FlexJobs, found that almost half of Americans engaged in remote work are happy working remotely and want to continue to work from home following the pandemic’s end.

The Breeze 2020 Exit Survey discovered that 72 percent of Americans working from home as a result of the pandemic plan to keeping doing so at least some of the time moving forward.

But the remote work environment has also been a challenge to good mental health for many. The lack of face-to-face communication has caused distress for a significant number of people. Zoom and Microsoft Teams calls just don’t satisfy the basic need for connection for these individuals. They liken this social isolation to solitary confinement in penal institutions. And, this doesn’t bode well for a person’s mental health.

The challenges of remote work-life balance

For millions of Americans who are working from home for the first time, striking a healthy work-life balance in the new normal has proven challenging. The stress of preventing the lines from blurring between their personal and professional lives is unlike anything they've experienced before.

An analysis by Microsoft of the remote work habits of over 350 of its work-from-home employees revealed:

  • Employees overall time in meetings each week went up by 10%
  • Employees are working through lunch breaks and later in the evening than they were previously
  • The number of instant messages sent between 6:00 pm and midnight increased by 52% for remote workers since the onset of the pandemic

How can the fact that so many people love working from home be reconciled with the fact that finding a healthy work-life balance is a challenge for so many of them? It may be that they find the work-life balance conundrum to cause less stress than working at an office or that it’s manageable because it’s preferable to being unemployed.

[ Related read: 7 healthy work-life balance tips to follow throughout your career ]

How can companies help with employee mental health?

Mental health is foremost on the minds of many remote workers. A survey of 1,000 Americans published by TELUS International found that 80 percent of workers would consider quitting their current job for one that focused more on employee’s mental health. Their research indicated that 75 percent of U.S. workers have struggled due to anxiety caused by COVID-19 and other world events. Forty-five percent say they feel less mentally healthy while working at home. That percentage likely continues to rise as the pandemic continues unabated at this time.

It’s apparent that many remote workers are struggling with mental health issues, and they’re looking to their employers for solutions. They want assistance, and there are several things companies can do to help:

  • Offer free online virtual counseling. A number of companies have successfully implemented this and have created different mental health and lifestyle spending funds for employees to take advantage of.
  • Check on employees periodically. For example, Tucows has implemented wellness check-ins by having their HR team reach out to randomly-selected workers just to see how they’re doing.
  • Host virtual wellness seminars.
  • Encourage employees to take time off, even if it’s just to stay at home.
  • Create a “COVID-19 Impact policy.” Allow employees to take two weeks of PTO if COVID-19 impacts them or a close family member. Have the PTO be separate from what is regularly allotted to them for personal or vacation days.
  • Encourage connectivity between employees. Increase the frequency of town halls and frequently communicate with employees. Provide workers with an outlet to have their concerns heard.
  • Let them have fun. Many companies are running weekly trivia games during lunch to bring employees together and have them engage and have fun with each other.

It’s vital that companies be proactive and get involved with helping remote workers experience good mental health. Employers need to lead their people with empathy and flexibility. They can demonstrate what it means to take a human-centered approach and positively impact employee’s lives.

[ Related read: Is mental illness considered a disability? ]

Self-care tips for remote worker mental health

As much as workers are looking to their employers for assistance, it also falls upon them to practice good mental hygiene. If you work from home, you can be proactive and:

  • Take scheduled breaks. Set an alarm to get up and stretch every hour, walk around the home while visiting with a friend, get away from email and eat lunch for 30 minutes in a separate area, or take a short walk outside during a scheduled break.
  • Guard your time. Set “in office” hours and communicate these with both colleagues and family. Be mindful that time can get away from you, and you end up working more hours when working from home. Start and end your work hours at a regular time. When you’re working – work. When you’re playing – play.
  • Don’t be too hard on yourself. Working from home can be a big transition. It’s normal to experience feelings of loneliness, isolation, stress, frustration, or anxiety. Other times you’ll feel relieved, relaxed, or energized. All of these feelings are normal.
  • Prioritize communication. Make sure you stay in touch with co-workers and management, whether via Zoom or on Slack. Isolation is one of the key triggers of chronic mental health problems. Don’t be an island; be proactive and reach out to others regularly.

If in doubt — ask for help. Living in a world with COVID-19 and working remotely can have adverse effects on mental health for anyone. Don’t go it alone. If funds are tight, see if your company has an EAP program or check on some of the free resources available in your area.

Jack Wolstenholm is the head of content at Breeze.

The information and content provided herein is for educational purposes only, and should not be considered legal, tax, investment, or financial advice, recommendation, or endorsement. Breeze does not guarantee the accuracy, completeness, reliability or usefulness of any testimonials, opinions, advice, product or service offers, or other information provided here by third parties. Individuals are encouraged to seek advice from their own tax or legal counsel.

— Published February 3, 2021
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